As the world's best men's singles and doubles players gathered this week in London for the ATP World Tour year-end tennis championships, one pair's limited credentials set it apart.
Accepted only because of what one member called a "loophole," the men in the field's lowest-seeded doubles pair were playing just their seventh tournament together. Before this week, they'd won a combined 42 doubles matches, most with other partners, at the ATP World Tour level—that's 734 fewer than the top-ranked team of Bob and Mike Bryan. And one of them says he is focusing on his singles career—which got him to a peak ranking of No. 190 in the world.
But in spite of their brief doubles résumés, Jonathan Marray of England and Frederik Nielsen of Denmark fit right in with the world's elite in two important ways.
Frederik Nielsen of Denmark, left, and Jonathan Marray of England celebrate their victory during the men's doubles match against Max Mirnyi of Belarus and Daniel Nestor of Canada at the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in London on Wednesday.
First, four of their six tour-level wins together until this week had been against four of the other seven teams in the field at year-end championships. And all four of those had come during their run to the Wimbledon title in July, the first Wimbledon doubles title won by a British man since 1936. This week, Marray and Nielsen have beaten two more to qualify for the semifinals, leaving just one team they haven't beaten, nor faced: Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek. No other team in the field has beaten as many as six of the other teams.
And second, because of Nielsen's focus on his singles career, they plan to split after this lucrative tournament, which has become the norm among the sport's elite.
"Being a doubles player, it's fun, but it's not the reason why I play tennis," Nielsen said after their first win here this week.
Yet Nielsen's personal choice also reflects a troubling reality for men's doubles tennis today: Only a handful of singles players of any distinction, let alone the very best, play doubles at a high level with any regularity. (Two exceptions who qualified this week for London, Radek Stepanek and Marcel Granollers, haven't been ranked above No. 19 in singles this year.) It's a stark contrast to the 1980s when most top singles players also played doubles frequently. John McEnroe won seven singles and nine men's doubles titles at Grand Slam tournaments.
"Until the top singles players are playing, it will feel like an opening act," said Pat Cash, the former Wimbledon singles champion who also won 12 doubles titles.
But being the opening act can be a desirable slot for doubles these days.
Because of rule changes instituted in 2005, doubles matches at ATP tournaments rarely exceed 90 minutes, making them more attractive to players hoping for less strain on their body and tournament directors. Without those provisions to curb multiple deuces and replace a potential third set with a first-to-10-points, win-by-two tiebreaker, matches could take more than three hours.
The benefits of those changes can be seen in the doubles tournament here in London, which has become the perfect warm-up act for the world's best singles players. The O2's 17,800-seat arena generally has been more than half full by the end of the doubles matches while the home crowd for Marray's matches has been even larger. And the fans have been rewarded, for the most part, with thrillers—five out of eight matches went to the deciding tiebreaker through Thursday.
That's a big improvement from a decade ago, when the year-end doubles event wasn't even played in the same location as the singles championship some seasons, recalled Daniel Nestor, the 40-year-old Canadian making his 14th appearance at the year-end tournament. He and his partner, Max Mirnyi, said they hope other tournaments follow the lead of London and add doubles matches to the undercards of evening sessions.
In the meantime, though, even the top doubles teams rarely play to big crowds at most other tour stops, and they don't stand to earn nearly as much in prize money as the top singles players.
Doubles No. 1 Mark Bryan has earned $871,603 in prize money this year, compared to $8,193,737 by No. 1 singles player Novak Djokovic. Even at this doubles-friendly event, an undefeated champion doubles team would split a check of $330,000 while an undefeated singles champion would win $1.76 million.
The shorter match format also means more potential for upsets, which can spur top players to search for new partners who can help them win a slightly bigger piece of the small prize-money pool. Mirnyi said that, while successful partnerships once lasted for a decade, these days few teams last more than two or three years. Next year he'll partner with Horia Tecau, while Nestor will play with Mahesh Bhupathi; both Tecau and Bhupathi are playing in the same group here, with other partners.
So the Bryan brothers now seem like a rarity. They are the only pair at this year's event who qualified together last year and also are planning to play together next year. "There is no doubt the Bryans hold the fort down in doubles," said Justin Gimelstob, winner of 13 men's doubles tournaments and now a player representative to the ATP's board of directors.
While the other wandering partners this week mostly have decided whom they'll pair up with next year, 31-year-old Marray remains on the hunt. Having won just 10 matches on tour before this year, he's had few opportunities to get to know the elite players and impress them with his game. Marray said he hopes that will change this week, as he auditions on a big stage and mingles with his higher-ranked peers.
"You start off a little bit in awe of them," he said.
Yet Marray has succeeded at the two premier London tournaments with a partner whose volleys can be shaky and whose career-high doubles ranking had been No. 91 until four months ago. Marray's stock, on the other hand, has never been higher. But to capitalize he'll need to find another partner he clicks with by January—preferably one who isn't prioritizing singles.